Lee Byungjun and his Grandma Nam Jaeyu sitting on their veranda. South Korean post-war housing. Postwar housing being demolished.
Story by Emma Doddrell
Photographs by Jarrod Hall
South Korea's cities are fringed with low-rise, hand built houses from the post-war period that reflect a different pace of life than todays sky-scraping apartment blocks. But times are changing and these unique, utilitarian and often ugly houses are being demolished as Koreans' expectations for their standard of living changes.
A classic example of Korean post-war housing can be found on the lower slopes of Bomun mountain in the city of Daejeon. Nam Jaeyu’s house was built in the 1950s by her husband and family. It comfortably nestles inside a stone outer wall surrounded by a maze of ramshackle concrete shanties scaling up a steep hill. Like the other houses it is made of cement and surrounded by a narrow veranda. It has a small yard which Mrs Nam shares with two other houses. A vegetable garden fills the yard from wall to wall.
I am greeted by Mrs Nam and her grandson Byungjun as I enter the gate. Byungjun is in his mid-twenties and is currently completing his compulsory national service at a local hospital. He translates for his grandmother as she doesn't speak any English.
They lead me through the veranda which is now glassed in, a modern addition, and into the living room. The doors are the traditional sliding type though now paned with frosted glass instead of paper and so low I have to bow my head to enter the room. It is tiny. We sit on the floor and Mrs Nam rushes into the kitchen, returning shortly with some homegrown quince tea.
The room we are sitting in is Byungjun's bedroom as well as the living room. A traditional feature of Korean houses is the adaptability of rooms. A room for sleeping at night can be a living room during the day. Such is the fluidity of the Korean house that despite it's tiny size, there is room for any activity.
Life is lived on the floor. People sit on the floor to eat meals and sleep on the floor. The floor is also the source of heat. When Mrs Nam’s husband built the house it had traditional wood-fired Undol floor heating. Hot air was piped underneath the floor from a fire built under the house. Undol makes the floor and the entire house warm in winter. The down-side to using wood is that if there is a leak or a crack in the floor carbon-monoxide can leak into the room and poison the inhabitants. So like most Koreans nowadays Mrs Nam now uses gas powered hot-water Undol.
In the humid summer heat the house opens up and is cool and breezy. In the freezing Korean winter the house becomes a cozy haven. Large rooms become small rooms simply by closing some sliding doors.
“Korean traditional culture is about people and nature working together. The house style works with nature. The house changes to suit the weather,” says Byungjun.
The way to situate a house, according to traditional Korean geomancy, is to build with a mountain at the back and a river in front. Mrs Nam’s house was built this way. But change is afoot. As we sit warming our buttocks on Mrs Nam's floor she tells me how things were when the house was built. The area surrounding it was all vegetable farms and rice paddies. A stream ran through the fields in front of the house and behind it the slopes of the mountain were covered in trees.
Starting in the 70s, changes began creeping in. People began to build more concrete shanties on the hill behind the house until eventually it was crowded with barely an inch of soil visible. At first the houses were thatched with straw but gradually they have all been tiled or sealed with corrugated iron. The stream is no more, it is now a drain that runs under the main road down from the mountain.
But nowadays Koreans are shunning single-story houses in favor of modern apartment blocks affectionately known to many Koreans as “chicken-houses”. The dominate the landscape in South Korea and can be seen in almost every corner of the country; from remote mountain towns, to the broad, flat valleys filed with rice paddies and orchards, to heart of South Korea's modern cities “chicken houses” are appearing everywhere.
When asked Byungjun says he admires the versatility of traditional Korean houses, but he doubts he will live in one after he moves out of his Grandma's.
“I want to live in an apartment,” he says.
He is not sure exactly why but all other young Koreans, he says, definitely prefer to live in an apartment.
Even Mrs Nam’s generation is shifting to the new way. “My friends my age have mostly moved to new apartments, leaving their Korean style houses,” Nam says. “But I don’t want to do that. I like my house.”